Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in NATO
NATO has a long-standing commitment to an active policy in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. The Alliance continues to pursue its security objectives through this policy, while at the same time ensuring that its collective defence obligations are met and the full range of its missions fulfilled.
- NATO actively contributes to effective and verifiable arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation efforts through its policies, activities and the efforts of Allied countries. NATO itself is not party to any treaty, but it supports and facilitates dialogue among Allies, partners and other countries to implement their international obligations.
- NATO Allies are parties to the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention and other treaties and agreements that promote arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
- NATO cooperates with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), other regional organisations and multilateral initiatives to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
- Nuclear weapons committed to NATO’s defence have been reduced by more than 90 per cent since the height of the Cold War.
- NATO will remain a nuclear alliance as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, at a level consistent with its deterrence and defence posture, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities.
- NATO Allies also assist partner countries in the destruction of surplus stocks of mines, arms and munitions. In addition, former military personnel receive retraining assistance through defence reform Trust Fund projects.
- The 2022 Strategic Concept, endorsed at the NATO Summit in Madrid, reinforced a critical link between NATO’s deterrence and defence efforts and Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, two policy instruments that complement and support Allied security.
- How NATO contributes
- The evolution of NATO’s contribution
- NATO committees on arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation
While often used together, the terms arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation do not mean the same thing. Experts consider them to reflect associated but different areas in the same discipline or subject.
Arms control is the broadest of the three terms and generally refers to mutually agreed upon restraints or controls (usually between states) on the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, deployment and use of troops, small arms, conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Arms control includes agreements that increase the transparency of military capabilities and activities, with the intention of reducing the risk of misinterpretation or miscalculation.
Disarmament refers to the act of eliminating or abolishing weapons (particularly offensive arms) either unilaterally or reciprocally. It may refer either to reducing the number of arms, or to eliminating entire categories of weapons.
For the Alliance, “non-proliferation refers to all efforts to prevent proliferation from occurring, or should it occur, to reverse it by any other means than the use of military force". Non-proliferation applies to both weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons) and conventional capabilities such as missiles and small arms.
Weapons of mass destruction proliferation
WMD proliferation refers to attempts by state or non-state actors to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport or transfer nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons or devices and their means of delivery or related material, including precursors, without prejudice to the rights and obligations of the States Parties to the following agreements: the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC) and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC).
How NATO contributes
NATO's policies support consultation and practical cooperation in a wide range of areas including conventional arms control; nuclear policy issues; promoting mine action and combatting the spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW); preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and developing and harmonising capabilities to defend against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats.
Allies reduced their conventional forces significantly at the end of the Cold War. NATO Allies that are Parties to the 1990 CFE Treaty remain committed to the regime of the Treaty. The Treaty is a "cornerstone of European security" and imposes legal and verifiable limits on the force structure of its 30 States Parties. Since its entry into force in 1992, States Parties have verifiably destroyed 100,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment such as tanks and attack helicopters, and conducted over 6,000 on-site inspections. As a response to Russia`s unilateral "suspension" of its Treaty obligations in 2007, NATO CFE Allies ceased implementing certain Treaty obligations vis-à-vis Russia in November 2011, while still continuing to implement fully their obligations with respect to all other CFE States Parties. Allies stated that these decisions are fully reversible should Russia return to full implementation.
At their summits since 2014, Allies have reaffirmed their long-standing commitment to conventional arms control as a key element of Euro-Atlantic security and emphasised the importance of full implementation and compliance to rebuild trust and confidence. They have underscored that Russia's unilateral military activity in and around Ukraine – and, since February 2022, its brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine – has shattered peace in Europe and is the gravest threat to the rules-based international order in decades. Moreover, Russia's long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty has eroded the positive contribution of this arms control instrument to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, as has its selective implementation of two arms control agreements: the Vienna Document (VDOC) and the Treaty on Open Skies.
Regarding the Vienna Document, in October 2019, NATO Allies submitted the most comprehensive modernisation proposal of this agreement since 1994.. Russia has yet to engage with the modernisation proposal, and continues to selectively implement the VDOC. Russia's failure to comply with VDOC commitments was clearly demonstrated during its successive rounds of military build-up throughout 2021 and in early 2022 prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as well as during its unprovoked war on Ukraine since February 2022.
With regard to the Open Skies Treaty, its effectiveness relies on the good will of its members to contribute to the process of transparency. In response to Russia selectively implementing and repeatedly violating this legally binding arms control treaty, the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty in November 2020. In June 2021, Russia announced its decision to withdraw from the Treaty. Despite Allies urging Russia to use the time before its withdrawal took effect to reconsider its decision and return to full compliance with the Open Skies Treaty, Russia's withdrawal became effective on 18 December 2021.
NATO Allies support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons. However, as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance, at a level consistent with its deterrence and defence posture, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities.
Nuclear weapons committed to NATO’s defence have been reduced by more than 90 per cent since the height of the Cold War. NATO nuclear weapon states have also reduced their nuclear arsenals and ceased production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons. Allies remain committed to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future on the basis of reciprocity, recognising that progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment.
All NATO Allies are States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970. The NPT is the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, and to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament. It provides a legal framework for the nuclear weapon states to give security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states that are Parties to the Treaty. It also provides a balanced, step-by-step framework for nuclear disarmament and is forged on three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation (Art. I, II), nuclear disarmament (Art. VI) and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science and technology (Art. IV).
The NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty, including both nuclear weapons possessor states and non-possessor states, to the goal of nuclear disarmament. On 5 March 2020, the 50th anniversary of its entry into force, NATO Allies issued a statement in which they confirmed their strong commitment to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects and affirmed that there is no credible alternative to this Treaty. In the 2022 Strategic Concept, Allies underscored their strong commitment to the NPT as the essential bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons and its full implementation, including Article VI.
NATO does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or Ban Treaty), which is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, is inconsistent with the Alliance's collective defence commitments, and will not enhance any country's security. Unlike the NPT, the Ban Treaty lacks a verification mechanism and risks undermining the NPT, which has been at the heart of global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts for more than 50 years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency's Safeguards regime that supports it1.
The Ban will not create the global security conditions necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons. Indeed, it risks building unrealistic expectations; and it will not strengthen the practical path to the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons.
NATO Allies were also strongly in favour of preserving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite years of US and Allied engagement, Russia continued to develop and deploy the SSC-8/9M729 missile system in violation of the INF Treaty. In December 2018, NATO Foreign Ministers supported the finding of the United States that Russia was in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty and called on Russia to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance. Russia, nevertheless, continued to deny its Treaty violation. As a consequence, on 1 February 2019, the United States suspended its obligations under the INF Treaty. The American withdrawal from the Treaty took effect on 2 August 2019, six months after this announcement. During this six-month period, Russia continued to deny its Treaty violation and did not honour its obligations through the verifiable destruction of its SSC-8/9M729 system. As such, Allies agree that Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty.
NATO agreed a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures to ensure that the Alliance's deterrence and defence remained credible and effective in the face of the significant risks posed by Russia's missile system. In response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, NATO immediately took additional defensive measures. Heads of State and Government have decided to reinforce the security and defence of all Allies across all domains to strengthen the Alliance's longer-term deterrence and defence posture. Nonetheless, Allies continue to remain firmly committed to the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
On 3 February 2021, the United States and Russia agreed on a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The North Atlantic Council, through the statement released on this occasion, expressed its full support to such an extension of the Treaty, while also reaffirming its major contribution to international stability. On 3 February 2023, the North Atlantic Council released a further statement noting with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally binding obligations under the New START Treaty. NATO Allies call on Russia to fulfil its obligations under the Treaty by facilitating New START inspections on Russian territory and by returning to participation in the Treaty’s implementation body, the Bilateral Consultative Committee.
Small arms and light weapons (SALW) and mine action (MA)
Allies work with partners and other international organisations to support the full implementation of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in SALW in All its Aspects. NATO also supports mine action activities across the globe. All NATO member countries, with the exception of the United States, are party to the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, often referred to as the Ottawa Convention, which seeks to end the use of anti-personnel landmines worldwide.
NATO established the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Trust Fund Policy in 2000 to assist partner countries with the safe destruction of stocks of anti-personnel landmines. The policy was later expanded to include the destruction of surplus munitions, unexploded ordnance and SALW, and assisting partner countries in managing the consequences of defence reform, training and building integrity.
NATO/Partnership Trust Funds may be initiated by a NATO member or partner country to tackle specific, practical issues linked to these areas. They are funded by voluntary contributions from individual NATO Allies, partners and organisations.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government emphasised the need to do more to achieve lasting calm and an end to violence in the Middle East and North Africa, which face continuing crises and instability with direct implications for the security of NATO. They also made a plea for enhanced practical cooperation, including through further support in the areas of counter-terrorism, small arms and light weapons, countering improvised explosive devices, and military border security. The objective of working with "partners to tackle shared security threats and challenges in regions of strategic interest to the Alliance, including the Middle East and North Africa and the Sahel regions" was reiterated in the 2022 Strategic Concept.
Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
NATO stepped up its activities in the WMD non-proliferation area in 1999 with the launch of the WMD Initiative and the establishment of a WMD Centre at NATO Headquarters the following year. NATO Allies work to prevent the proliferation of WMD by state and non-state actors through an active political agenda of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. They also address the WMD threat by developing and harmonising defence capabilities and, when necessary, by employing these capabilities, consistent with political decisions in support of non-proliferation objectives. Both political and defence elements are essential to NATO's security, as is the preparedness for recovery efforts, should it suffer a WMD attack or CBRN event.
In the 2022 Strategic Concept, NATO committed to continue investing in CBRN defence, to enhance its relevant policies, plans, training and exercises, and to ensure that CBRN defence capabilities are integrated into Alliance deterrence and defence posture. Furthermore, in June 2022, Allies agreed NATO's CBRN Defence Policy, which commits the Alliance to having the military capabilities necessary to counter WMD proliferation, and to operate effectively and fight and prevail in any environment. Allies further committed to enhancing their national and collective defence and resilience against CBRN threats of all types.
The Alliance also strengthens international security through its engagement with partner countries and other international organisations. NATO's partnership programmes provide effective frameworks for dialogue, consultation and coordination, contributing to NATO's arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Of particular importance is the outreach to and cooperation with the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and other organisations and multilateral initiatives that address WMD proliferation.
Since 2004, NATO has organised the annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. This unique event provides a venue for informal discussions among senior national officials about all types of WMD threats, as well as potential political and diplomatic responses. It regularly includes more than 150 attendees from around 50 countries. The Conference has been hosted by both Allies and partners since it first took place at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2004.
Since its entry into force in 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention has become one of the pillars of the global non-proliferation regime. The Convention prohibits the development, transfer and use of chemical weapons. States Parties to the Convention include all NATO member countries. They commit not to develop, produce or acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, nor to transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone. States Parties also undertake not to engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons, nor to commit to assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in prohibited activity.
The first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since NATO's foundation occurred on 4 March 2018 in Salisbury, United Kingdom. The military grade nerve agent was of a type developed by Russia. Allies agreed that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements, and they called on Russia to disclose the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In September 2020, Allies condemned the attack on Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny with the use of a nerve agent from the banned Novichok group. They made clear that any use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, is a breach of international law and contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of all chemical weapons.
Allies also strongly condemned the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and called for those responsible to be held to account. Despite sustained diplomatic efforts, the Syrian regime's repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians contributed to appalling human suffering since the start of the conflict in 2011. The use of such weapons was in flagrant violation of international standards and non-proliferation norms, multiple UN Security Council Resolutions, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified in 2013. NATO considers any use of chemical weapons by state or non-state actors to be a threat to international peace and security.
All NATO Allies are States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and fully abide by its prohibitions on the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. Allies are committed to strengthening the implementation of the BWC as a cornerstone of the international regime against WMD proliferation.
- North Atlantic Council Statement on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 20 September 2017.
The evolution of NATO’s contribution
Active policies in arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation have been an inseparable part of NATO's contribution to security and stability since 1957, when Allies put forward the first NATO Disarmament Proposal in London and subsequently established regular meetings of disarmament experts at NATO Headquarters. These policies were most clearly articulated in the Harmel Report of 1967.
This report forms the basis for NATO's security policy. It outlined two objectives: maintaining a sufficient military capacity to act as an effective and credible deterrent against aggression and other forms of pressure, and, on that basis, seeking to improve East-West relations through dialogue. The Alliance's objectives in arms control are tied to the achievement of both aims. Deterrence and defence help to prevent war against hostile adversaries; arms control and dialogue help to prevent war when the sides find a common interest in avoiding conflict. It is therefore important that deterrence and defence policies, and arms control policies, remain mutually reinforcing with the common goal of preventing war.
Comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament
In May 1989, NATO adopted the Comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament, which allowed the Alliance to move forward in the sphere of arms control. It addressed the role of arms control in East-West relations, the principles of Alliance security and a number of guiding principles and objectives governing Allied policy in the nuclear, conventional and chemical fields of arms control.
It clearly set out the interrelationships between arms control and defence policies and established the overall conceptual framework within which the Alliance sought progress in each area of its arms control agenda.
The Alliance's Strategic Concept
NATO's continued adherence to this policy was reaffirmed in the 2022 Strategic Concept (with regard to nuclear weapons):
"The fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. NATO's goal is a safer world for all; we seek to create the security environment for a world without nuclear weapons."
"Nuclear weapons are unique. The circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. Any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict. The Alliance has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve."
Deterrence and Defence Posture Review
The NATO Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR), agreed at the Chicago Summit in 2012, addresses issues of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. It underscores: “The Alliance is resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in a way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all”. It also repeats that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.
The Special Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee (ADNC) was established on the basis of the DDPR agreement.
Allied leaders have reiterated their commitment to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation since the first NATO Summit in 1957. For instance, in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, they took note of a report on raising NATO's profile in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, and at the 2009 Strasbourg/Kehl Summit, they endorsed NATO's Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Defending against Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Threats. In the 2016 Warsaw Summit Declaration, the Alliance reaffirmed its commitment to conventional arms control and emphasised the importance of a full compliance with and implementation of arms control agreements to rebuild trust and confidence. In 2016, Allied leaders also stated that Russia's unilateral military activity in and around Ukraine has undermined peace, security and stability across the region; they also stressed that Russia's selective implementation of agreements such as the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and its long-standing non-implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty have eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments. At Warsaw, NATO also continued to call on Russia to preserve the viability of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and condemned the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for its multiple ballistic missile tests and its nuclear tests, calling on the DPRK to immediately cease and abandon all its existing nuclear and ballistic missile activities in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner and re-engage in international talks.
At the Brussels Summit in July 2018, Allies expressed their position that the INF Treaty had been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security. They also underlined the importance of effective multilateralism and international cooperation, including through the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in addressing WMD threats. In that spirit, NATO welcomed the decision by the June 2018 OPCW Conference of States Parties, in particular to ask the independent experts of the OPCW Technical Secretariat to put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Allies demanded that all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks worldwide be held accountable and called upon all countries to join the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. Then at the meeting of NATO leaders in London in 2019, Allies reiterated their full commitment to the preservation and strengthening of effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, taking into account the prevailing security environment. Allies also expressed their strong commitment to the full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
At the 2021 Brussels Summit in June, Allies welcomed talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, and fully supported their agreement to extend the New START Treaty for five years. However, Allies regretted that the conditions for achieving disarmament had not been realised since the 2018 Brussels Summit. Following the termination of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Allies stated they would continue to respond in a measured and responsible way to the significant risks posed by the Russian 9M729 missile and other short- and intermediate-range missiles. They reiterated their support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as the essential bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons, and their opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They also condemned the repeated use of chemical weapons and welcomed the decision by the April 2021 Conference of the States Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to suspend Syria's rights and privileges under the CWC. Furthermore, Allies reasserted their commitment to conventional arms control and called on Russia to return to the full implementation of and compliance with the letter and spirit of all its international obligations and commitments.
Russia's brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 is causing enormous human suffering and destruction; it has shattered peace in Europe and is an assault on international norms. At the extraordinary NATO Summit on 25 February, Allied leaders unanimously condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and called on Russia to turn back from the path of aggression it has chosen. On 24 March, at a subsequent extraordinary Summit, NATO leaders reiterated their condemnation and called for an immediate stop to the war, in line with the Aggression against Ukraine Resolution adopted at the UN General Assembly of 2 March 2022, and also called on Russia to comply with the 16 March ruling by the UN International Court of Justice and immediately suspend military operations.
At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, NATO leaders condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine and its blatant violation of international law. The 2022 Strategic Concept, endorsed in Madrid, states that Russia is the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. It continues by stating that strategic stability is essential and that the Alliance's "efforts on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation aim to reduce risk and enhance security, transparency, verification, and compliance." To this end, Allies undertook to "pursue all elements of strategic risk reduction, including promoting confidence building and predictability through dialogue, increasing understanding, and establishing effective crisis management and prevention tools."
NATO committees on arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation
A number of NATO committees and bodies oversee different aspects of Alliance activities in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Within the International Staff, the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre (ACDC) oversees the committees that address arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. As with all policy, overall political guidance is provided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body. Overall military guidance is provided by the Military Committee. Detailed oversight of activities and policy in specific areas is provided by a number of bodies, including the High Level Task Force (HLTF) on Conventional Arms Control; the Special Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee (ADNC); the Verification Coordinating Committee (VCC); and the Committee on Proliferation (CP) in Politico-Military format (for global non-proliferation issues) and Defence format (for CBRN defence issues). The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Political Committee also both meet on small arms and light weapons and mine action topics in ad hoc formats, coordinating Allied and partner work on mitigating this important global threat.